The Tale of the Bloodied Soldier

I was once asked to talk at a local political meeting about the impact of sanctions on the civilians of Iraq. Amongst the audience I noticed a man with a military bearing and clipped white moustache who looked distinctly out of place. Intrigued, I sought him out when the meeting was over and asked him what had prompted him to come. He replied that he was not really interested in politics but he had a great affection for Iraq. This was his story:

He had been in the army and subsequently worked as an actor and film extra. In the nineteen-eighties he was given a small role in Al-Mas’ala Al-Kubra‎ or The Clash of Loyalties, a film being made in Iraq. He spent a couple of months in and around Baghdad, was treated with kindness and hospitality everywhere he went and thoroughly enjoyed himself, despite the fact that his one starring moment never made it onto the screen.

The film, which featured Oliver Reed, was a heroic retelling of the 1920 Iraqi rebellion against British Colonial rule. An epic in the Hollywood mode, valorising the patriotic heroism of the Iraqi rebels, it was perhaps intended to galvanise support for a more current conflict – Iraq’s war with Iran.

At that point the bloodshed between these countries had already lasted two years. The ‘international community’, which would respond so speedily to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, showed little inclination to intervene or broker an end to this conflict, which was providing a lucrative market for military ‘assistance’ of all kinds. For the ordinary soldiers it was a brutal affair, reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I. The two armies were locked in stalemate, bogged down in flat open terrain, and casualties were high on both sides.

In order to film the battle scenes for The Clash of Loyalties, the Iraqi producers enlisted demobilised units from the Iraqi army – veteran units who had seen action against Iran. One of the most dramatic scenes was to be a huge cavalry charge which needed to be choreographed with military discipline. It was in this scene that my new acquaintance was to have his moment of glory. He had a minor role – a junior British Officer – but as luck would have it the director had singled him out for a glorious death. Thrown from his horse he was to be surrounded by Iraqi rebels and shot in the stomach, his death throes filmed as a cut-away from the main action.

He was given a blood bag to conceal beneath his uniform, which he would burst as he fell to the ground. They rehearsed the scene several times and prepared for the first take. All went as planned until the fatal shot. But the moment blood began to seep through the Englishman’s jacket his screen enemies forgot where they were and ran to his side. After three more attempts the director abandoned the scene. The Iraqi extras were so traumatised by their experience of combat they could not witness this make-believe hemorrhage without rushing to the dying man’s aid.

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